Sketch of the imagination

Photo by Flickr user jesse Draper. Click for sourcePsychologist Paul Bloom considers why imaginary characters and fictional plots can have such a powerful emotional effect in a fantastic article for the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bloom argues that we have a form of ‘dual representation’ for fictional reveries where we engage our emotions with the characters, plot or situation as if they were real while knowing that they are not.

Does this suggest that people believe, at some level, that the events are real? Do we sometimes think that fictional characters actually exist and fictional events actually occur? Of course, people get fooled, as when parents tell their children about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, or when an adult mistakes a story for a documentary, or vice versa. But the idea here is more interesting than that‚Äîit is that even once we consciously know something is fictional, there is a part of us that believes it’s real…

In an important pair of papers, Gendler introduces a novel term to describe the mental state that underlies these reactions: She calls it “alief.” Beliefs are attitudes that we hold in response to how things are. Aliefs are more primitive. They are responses to how things seem. In the above example, people have beliefs that tell them they are safe, but they have aliefs that tell them they are in danger. Or consider the findings of Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, that people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. Gendler notes that the belief here is: The bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty. But the alief is stupid, screaming, “Filthy object! Dangerous object! Stay away!”

The point of alief is to capture the fact that our minds are partially indifferent to the contrast between events that we believe to be real versus those that seem to be real, or that are imagined to be real. This extends naturally to the pleasures of the imagination.

It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging article that explores imagination from all angles and poses some genuinely challenging ideas about how we keep one foot either side of the fantasy divide.

Link to article ‘The Pleasures of Imagination’.

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